Feature Article

World Of Warcraft Devs Reflect On MMO's Landmark First Expansion, The Burning Crusade

Revisiting the past.

Originally released 14 years ago in 2007 and now new again in World of Warcraft Classic with its re-launch today, June 1, The Burning Crusade was a landmark expansion for the MMO. The first expansion to the genre-defining game set the stage for what would come in the future in a variety of ways, and it left a lasting impact on Azeroth.

As the first WoW expansion, a lot was riding on it--and it delivered. The expansion added the game's first new races--the Draenei and the Blood Elves--that shook up the meta, along with new zones, more PvP content, and much more.

The old is new again, as The Burning Crusade launched for WoW Classic today, allowing players to revisit vanilla TBC how they remember it all those years ago. Ahead of the launch, GameSpot spoke with Blizzard's Brian Birmingham (lead software engineer) and John Hight (executive producer for WoW and vice president at Blizzard), both of whom are veterans of the games studio who looked back and reflected on the launch and impact of The Burning Crusade.

They also told us what it's like to be revisiting the expansion with WoW Classic and they shared some behind-the-scenes stories from its development. The developers also touched on revisiting the expansion to bring it back for WoW Classic, temptations they had to change features and systems based on modern game development practices, and what they are most proud of from The Burning Crusade.

"It's such a massive game with so many little nooks and crannies. Our players have been great at pointing out places where we need to do further investigation," Birmingham said. "We dig in and really try to make sure that we can get things as correct as we possibly can. I'm really proud of the fact that we got this so close."

You can check out our full interview with Birmingham and Hight below.

WoW’s The Burning Crusade expansion was a huge deal. As the first expansion to WoW, it made a number of bold and future-facing updates and improvements to the MMO. When you look back it now, 14 years later, how do you think about its legacy and impact?

Brian Birmingham: I feel like one of the things that it really did was expose us to what it meant to have an expansion, which was to us so much like unlocking a new place to explore and new journeys to uncover. And this otherworldly space that you get to explore in Outland is just such an inviting and exciting place to go through. And some of those early raids, especially Karazhan, are some of my favorites and being able to deliver on that kind of promise of, "Hey, there's a new chapter, a new thing to go do." It was something that was really exciting about this expansion.

John Hight: WoW was so huge, just discovering it, exploring through it, you could feel the boldness of WoW when it first came out. How do you one-up that with an expansion? I think the imagination behind each of the zones, plus introducing some new races into your playable characters, was quite an incredible experience. I can remember that I had preconceived notions about what Burning Crusade would be, and they were much smaller than the reality of what it became and that excitement of crossing over through the Dark Portal...I tried to avoid knowing what I was going to see on the other side. I didn't play in the beta, so it was quite a treat.

Revisiting it now with The Burning Crusade Classic through WoW Classic must be a real trip, seeing it come full circle like this. Are there things you see, notice, or appreciate better or more fully now?

Brian Birmingham: Definitely. I would say for me, it really started with WoW Classic itself, but one of the things I really recognize now that maybe I didn't then was that important social stickiness that comes from having the desire to make your own group. There are certainly the nice conveniences of, “I can get another dungeon group over lunch,” in modern WoW, but going back to Classic and having that, "No, I'm going to plan out how I'm going to attack this dungeon. I need to get my group together. I need to invite the people who are my friends and look for more friends when I don't have enough and put effort into that." …that made those kind of groups sticky and feel like they were important and beginnings of sometimes lasting friendships. I really appreciate that from Burning Crusade and it's definitely altered my perception of how important that is.

John Hight: I had a single-minded obsession to fly, and I think I tried to optimize a little bit too much around getting to that point. Subsequently I've leveled some alts and I've gone back into that area and there's just some really cool stories. I guess if I had one message to players, it's to take your time, don't be in a rush. The wings will be there. They're not going to go away. So, discover all of it because the questing is... some of our best. I love dad jokes. And so some of the best dad jokes are in there, so I would say enjoy it.

With WoW Classic, you’re aiming to replicate the WoW experience as it was all those years ago. Was it tempting to want to change or add things now to reflect the way in which modern MMO games operate?

Brian Birmingham: There's the obvious one where we did introduce the boost, which we think is important for players to be able to come together and play alongside each other as we did this launch. We know that there are players who did not play through Classic and now want to come back and play with their friends who did. We want to give them that opportunity to play together, but at the same time, still recognize the accomplishments of players who did play through it and make sure they still feel they have a leg up for all of their hard work doing that the old-fashioned way. So that's something that we definitely felt we made a reasonable choice to kind of strike that balance.

John Hight: The achievement that we've done on the server-side is just the stability and increasing the number of people that can play and it's no small feat. Because even to this day, what makes World of Warcraft unique is the hundreds of people that you're going to see any time you turn around in that world and the thousands of people that are going to play on the realm with you and the millions of people that are going to be part of this experience and very few games do anything like that. We have continued to try and increase the number of folks that we can get on a realm, the number of people that we can have on the screen. And that technology is part of Burning Crusade Classic. It's the same content, but I think it's going to feel even more alive because we've almost quadrupled the number of people we can get on realm, right Brian?

Brian Birmingham: Yes, that's true. We can actually get more than four times the number of people on an individual realm now.

John Hight: There's still going to be queues, probably when we launch, and hopefully they'll be shorter, but it's well worth it.

Brian Birmingham: Yeah certainly. We still have upper bounds on what we can support, but it's higher than it used to be for sure. We're always looking to improve that.

Asking you to rank WoW expansions is probably like choosing a favorite child. But when you think about The Burning Crusade as the first of now eight expansions to WoW, what are some of your lasting memories of it? Things that have stuck with you over the years?

Brian Birmingham: For me, Karazhan is top of mind. That has stuck with me through the years as one of my favorite raids, because it's just such a cool, magical castle where there's a new surprise waiting around every corner from ghostly servants in the Servants Quarters to otherworldly dragons on the top floor, demons hiding in the bookshelves. It's ridiculous; the level of intricate and cool encounters that you experience as you're exploring this kind of spooky haunted castle, I love every minute of it.

John Hight: That's tough. I love farming so I’m looking forward to getting another drake and fighting over those eggs. I played on a PVP realm so that was certainly a memorable and sometimes frustrating experience, but definitely a great achievement once I got them. I think the domed cities or biomes in Netherstorm. I remember when I was a kid, I saw the sci-fi movie Silent Running where they have these dome cities out in space. I thought, "Oh, that's a really cool idea." And then here it is inside of WoW and where else could you have a fantasy universe that has domed space cities from Ethereal travelers from another time?

I remember crawling up the hills from Zangarmarsh, all the way over into Nagrand and then of course getting killed and having to go, “Where the heck was my corpse?” And spending another hour trying to get to it. But it's pretty crazy. I think the imagination of that team still blows me away, but I think they set the right tone with Burning Crusade. It was...definitely wanting to one up what they had done with WoW, which is now WoW Classic. And I think that has set the tone for all the expansions since. I know that when we have conversations today, we're talking about Shadowlands we want it to feel very different and we go back to, "Yeah and think about the diversity they had in Burning Crusade. That is the standard; we've got to do that or better."

Obviously a massive part of the expansion was the introduction of the new races, the Draenei and the Blood Elves. Can you briefly walk us through the design and implementation of those and how, as best you can remember, you thought their introduction might mix up the overall meta?

Brian Birmingham: I remember a lot of it was trying to give that ability to have someone that you could identify with on your chosen faction. Certainly people have a strong faction identity and they want to go to the faction that they kind of resonate with. But sometimes you've got friends who were kind of pushing you, "Hey, come play with us on this faction." And you're like, "Well, I want to make sure I feel like I fit in there." And so giving something like the Blood Elves to the Horde and the Draenei to the Alliance, gives you that opportunity to say, "Well, I really want to be that big guy with the kind of otherworldly look." And so you could do that. Or, “I want to be the kind of pretty elf." Okay, well you can do that too. We want to make sure that they feel like they fit in their respective factions, but also feel like they could be something that you could identify with. And that was something that was really important then and it's still really important to us now.

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I remember I was playing hard back then and when they came out, everybody was so excited about Blood Elves and I was like, "I think the Draenei look so cool. I want to be one of those, but they're on Alliance." And actually now, I'm playing Alliance now because Classic was my opportunity for a reset and be like, "Let me try the other side." I've never played any of those quests, I don't know any of that storyline. There's a whole parallel chapter. And so Classic has been my opportunity to play the other side and see the other chapters and everything from a new perspective. So I'll get that chance to play a Draenei this time.

On the story side, some of the threads you established and set up made a significant impact on the story that continues to this day. How much of what has since transpired in WoW’s lore was mapped out back then?

John Hight: When we were doing Legion, I know that in conversations I had with the designers, there is a lot of Illidan’s story and what motivated him and what drove him in Burning Crusade. It's the backstory. If you're a Demon Hunter fan or an Illidan fan, you’ve got to play Burning Crusade because it gives you a lot of that detail. I know his particular character was certainly mapped out and a lot of where we thought he'd end up. And the Legion itself, there was always the thought that with Sargeras and the Legion, we have to get back to this. We didn't want to close the book completely. We wanted to let everyone know that that was an existential threat that we would have to revisit.

What are you most proud of about The Burning Crusade?

Brian Birmingham: I want to say Karazhan again, but I also want to give you a different answer. I would say the thing I'm most proud of is that we are able to get as authentic as we can while still running on modern code base and supporting all of those modern improvements in terms of our ability to run a cloud infrastructure and support a large number of players, and also just running on modern hardware. What has been the big challenge really is, "Can we do this on modern code?" And I'm really proud of and excited for the team’s ability to get that right, even though it is on a significantly different code base, having that original data to pull from all the meticulous comparisons that we're doing, and the fact that we're doing them all the time.

It's such a massive game with so many little nooks and crannies. Our players have been great at pointing out places where we need to do further investigation. We dig in and really try to make sure that we can get things as correct as we possibly can. I'm really proud of the fact that we got this so close.

John Hight: I'm most proud of the community, the players. We had no idea when we did WoW Classic how popular it was going to be, honestly. We all love the game, I guess we kind of felt, "Well, we'll see... if people really will stick around." Burning Crusade has shown that they will. We've only been a couple of days in here, but the support has been fantastic. So many people that maybe haven't played in the last couple of months and are coming back in to play and check it out and be part of it. And they feel so passionate about it. And the community is just so kind, in terms of looking out for each other and understanding that things are going to be a bit harder. And maybe there's some rough edges that you don't experience in Modern WoW, but that's part of the fun and the charm for them.

"I'm most proud of the community, the players. We had no idea when we did WoW Classic how popular it was going to be, honestly." -- John Hight

Brian Birmingham: Actually, I talked to some people who were saying that they were being so polite in Classic, partly as an almost penance for how they were maybe not nice 15 years ago. Wanted an opportunity to make some new relationships with a better attitude. Yeah, everybody's a little more grown up, a little more balanced in their opinions.

The reception to The Burning Crusade was near-unanimous praise. As your first expansion to WoW, how did that make you feel at the time, and what impact did such strong reviews have on your development processes and ambitions afterwards?

Brian Birmingham: Oh my gosh. I remember it was such a big lift. I was a relatively new employee at the time, but I remember I went to the midnight signing. We used to do these midnight signings where we would go out and sign people's collectors editions, and regular boxes as they would wait in line at midnight to buy them. And it was so exciting to be able to see that, hearing the stories from the original developers about lines that went around the building and so we actually had them at multiple sites and it was great to see the fans come out, really celebrate with us.

It always gives you that boost to kind of go back and try even harder than you have been to make everything as good as you possibly can. It's one of the things I love about BlizzCon now is when we get to be able to interact with our fans and feel their passion, that's really what fuels us. And so I can't wait until we can do BlizzCon in person again.

John Hight: I was a player at the time and so for me, amongst some of my peers it was validation because I've been playing for a while and I literally remember somebody saying, "Yeah, have you seen this game Burning Crusade?" And I'm like, "Yeah, that's WoW, that's what I'm playing right now." "Oh, man, that thing looks off the hook." It's like, "Well, you should come and play with me."

So it was cool that WoW could do that and not just take little incremental baby steps towards keeping its community going, but taking a really big, bold one going to another world. You asked, how has that influenced things? Every time we do an expansion, it's like, "Yeah, got to be a big new world, got to have new features, got to have some crazy zones in it. There's got to be stuff that people didn't expect in this." And it was Burning Crusade that started all of that.

Do you have any stories from the development of the expansion you can share that people might not expect?

Brian Birmingham: It was just amazing to see how quickly the team was able to work. Even though it was still rapidly growing. As I mentioned, I was one of the new hires then and seeing how quickly we were trying to staff up and do everything at a breakneck pace. It was inspiring to see such great and talented people to be working alongside.

With this recreation, to see that again, and how the team is larger now, of course, supporting Modern and Classic, to see just how cooperative and what great teamwork everybody has shown across the team, not just the people who are dedicated to working on WoW Classic, but the people on all of World of Warcraft who have been supportive and contributing to making sure this has been a successful release has been really inspiring and something that I really appreciate. It's really one of the best teams in the world to work on, I can't imagine being anywhere else.

John Hight: It's been a lot of fun for us too. We woke up one day and we realized, "Oh my gosh, we're supporting two games." Two big MMORPGs. And it's been fun watching the team sort of rally to the cause. Everyone's getting into it and we're trying to figure out how to do this and support both player communities and recognize that some communities cross-over, and there are people that play both games. It has been a little bit of a logistical challenge for us, but one that I'm really proud the team has risen to the occasion.

This is our first expansion now for the Classic community and honestly, we've done all this while working at home. The last expansion in Modern, and now this expansion in Classic, it's been great to see the team do this. We are all looking forward to the time when we can meet in person again and I can hear Brian's laughter down the hall and instead of just over zoom.

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Eddie Makuch

Eddie Makuch mainly writes news.

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